Phil Kessel has often been criticized for appearing absent on the ice when he’s not scoring, but his recent slump has hit a new low.
Just in the Penguins’s past two games, two separate goals against have either been the direct cause of a blunder by Kessel or have involved him in some way.
During the New Jersey game, even though Jack Johnson made an untimely pinch and got caught on the forecheck, Kessel, the last man back, flubbed on the puck and got stripped by Marcus Johansson for a backhand goal — forever cementing him on the Devils’ 2018-19 highlight reel. In Thursday night’s game against the Sharks, Kessel made a poor decision on the power play to try to carry the puck between two defenders into the zone, immediately losing possession and allowing Evander Kane to race down to the other end and score short-handed. Mike Sullivan immediately demoted Kessel to the second power play unit, a long-overdue move, because of it.
But Kessel’s slump seems to go deeper than a few glaring on-ice mistakes. Lack of attention to detail. Lack of energy. Lack of interest. When Kessel’s game is off, boy is it ugly to watch. He has genuinely looked broken and lost since the team’s return from their bye week and the NHL All-Star break.
In Kessel’s past 10 games, he’s sporting a lowly 42.16 average Corsi For percentage to go along with his mistakes. According to analyst Sean Tierney’s player charts, his shot rates are regressing rapidly. He continues to opt for the extra pass instead of shooting on clear looks. He’s fanning on one-timers on open nets. His giveaways come at the worst moments and are yielding goals against. He’s committing untimely penalties. And though he has five points (all assists) and 10 shots on goal in that 10-game stretch, his last goal came on January 30 against the Lightning.
Though he’s steadily getting quality chances, Kessel’s performances are graded on how well he fares on the score sheet — that’s just the type of player he is. And when he’s not putting pucks in the net, all his other attributes are exposed.
Hopefully this cold streak ends for him, but lately it seems like we’re constantly circling back to the excuse that the Penguins’ slumping top players are “just on a cold streak.” While that may be true, and while they can just as easily break out of it with a few bounces going their way, it goes without saying that both Kessel and a couple other lineup regulars need a bump to get going.
The Penguins’ playoff hopes will hugely benefit from it.